'We're saving lives'

When Seth Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army, he took an oath to defend his fellow Americans. But even though Grant's 15-year career as an Army medic is over, he still feels obligated to live up to that oath.

That’s why Grant has been putting in 16-hour days this week running American Legion Post 134’s warming shelter to help get Portland, Ore., residents out of freezing temperatures. On any given night since the shelter opened Jan. 4, it has provided a break for more than 20 locals without a place to stay or without power from record snowfall and temperatures that have barely reached freezing.

“We’ve had four deaths from hypothermia in the city in the last week,” said Grant, Post 134's outreach coordinator. “We view ourselves as veterans … who don’t have a uniform anymore, but we all took the same oath to serve our people and to serve our country. Whether this is a domestic enemy, a terrorism threat or a mall shooter, or an earthquake, it’s still a threat to our people. We’re not done serving.

“For us to have space where we can allow folks to stay warm, to be comfortable, to be safe, to have a place to bed down and not sleep in a foot and a half of snow, it’s the responsible thing to do. That’s what we’re doing.”

Making Post 134 a bigger part of its surrounding community has been part of the strategy post-9/11 veteran Sean Davis brought with him when he was elected post commander in 2014. Davis created poetry nights at the post, tried to come up with events that were more family friendly and created a food pantry. His efforts have boosted membership at the post, but setting up shelter falls into Davis’ plans for increasing the post’s presence in its community.

“I believe for The American Legion to thrive we have to open it up to the community,” Davis said. “I believe in the mission that The American Legion was founded on: to give veterans a leadership role in their community and to do good. We’re doing that, and the community recognizes that.”

Of course there were steps to be taken in order to make the shelter happen, including getting registered on a resource list and making sure the post had plenty of smoke detectors. But Davis said every agency was very easy to work with – so much so that the fire marshal herself even installed the necessary smoke alarms.

“There was such a need out there,” Davis said. “They met us more than halfway.”

Post 134 members helped man the center without blinking an eye. “The most inspiring thing, I think, was how the combat veterans just switched on,” Davis said. “They went right back into the mode where they started helping out. They went to continuous ops. None of them are getting paid. They’re just doing it and saving lives. It’s a really awesome thing.”

And once word got out of what the post was doing, donations poured in. Homemade soup and other food items ensure no one missed a meal. Clothing and blankets came in to provide more warmth. Hygiene products also were dropped off. And former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski even stopped by the post and gave his winter coat to a man staying there.

Grant said the post has received donations from as far away as the East Coast. So many donations have come in that Post 134 is now rerouting some of those items to other facilities to provide assistance in their efforts.

“We have probably shipped out over a ton – that’s not a figure of speech – literally a ton of clothing out to other shelters, as well as to teams that are going out and finding folks that are living on the street and either can’t or don’t want to come in,” Grant said. “I think (the donation total) is a couple different factors. I think a lot of the organizations out there folks are very leery of giving to. They know coming here it’s a direct transfer. They see it when they walk in going to the right place.

“And people want a way to reach out. I think inherently, as human beings and as citizens in the community, we say, ‘Oh, that poor guy died in his car. What can I do?’ They have a very tangible answer here.”

Grant said community service efforts like opening up the shelter provide veterans like himself with that sense of purpose they had while serving. “You come back to the world, and life here just doesn’t have the importance it had in a combat zone, where what you do directly affects if the guy to the left or right is getting home,” he said. “That kind of purpose, that kind of service is what we’re finding so many guys are thriving on, as well as identifying with guys in the field.

“That combination of tribe and purpose, I think it’s saved lives. I think it’s saved veterans’ lives.”

Davis said he’d like to see other Legion posts step up and take the role that Post 134 has taken in its community. “It’s making us … more than relevant,” he said. “We’re leading. We’re community leaders again. It’s a great thing for the veterans because they have a purpose and they’re saving lives again in their own community. We’re saving lives.

“We didn’t wait for permission. That’s what veterans do. They get things done.”

For videos and more photos from Post 134’s shelter, click here. You can also reach Davis on Facebook to find out how your post can set up a similar shelter.